In late 2016, well after the Nikki Dinki petition, another proposal popped up on Change.org asking Food Network to start a vegan show. The string of comments voice various reasons for signing, including plenty along the lines of, "I'm not vegan, but I'd like to learn more about it." Optimistically, it was an unprecedented display of amalgamated support for programming that would celebrate its vegan identity. Cynically, it was a group of excitable naifs shouting into the void. Seeking 15,000 signatures, the petition fell 44 short.
Truthfully, it's not like Scripps and other mass media companies have completely ignored the rallies below their windows. In a post-How to Live to 100 ecosystem, Scripps has dipped its toes into less costly productions, throwing up two seasons of a digital-only show called Like a Vegan on the Cooking Channel's website and repurposing its host, chef Ayinde Howell, for a series of Tuesday lunchtime Facebook Live videos on the Food Network Live page. Before the social network deprioritized live video in early 2017, effectively ensuring publishers would leave the infrastructure to rust, Howell's weekly videos corralled in helpful comments, all [sic], like "i hate tofu," but also sentiments like "you have inspired me to go to a vegan restaurant," and, "There's FINALLY a vegan chef on food Network making vegan food?!"
Those who are desperate to see this kind of show harbor a healthy belief that we're closer to a mainstream plant-based chef than we've ever been. How Discovery's $11.9 billion deal to purchase Scripps, which also owns HGTV and Travel Channel, will affect Food Network specifically remains to be seen. (Disclosure: Discovery is an investor in Group Nine Media, Thrillist's parent company.) Already, the decision to move Discovery's global headquarters to New York City by 2019, packing up Scripps corporate offices in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Discovery in Silver Springs, Maryland, have people curious to see if it'll reignite the sort of television that so bewitched the younger demographic when Food Network started in the '90s.
"Young people, for the most part, think it's this old stodgy network that doesn't interest them," Salkin said. It's noteworthy that the generational gap between the vegetarian-inclined is stark. About 12% of Americans 18-49 identify as mostly vegetarian, whereas it shrinks to 5% in those above 50, according to Pew Research Center data from 2016. "The US is becoming a nation of food tribalists with cultures built around close-knit viral communities based on personal values and behaviors," a director of New Hope Natural Media told a natural products expo in 2015. It's Generation Z, with a proclivity for social responsibility, carrying the torch. "If you want to try to keep your viewers into the next generation," said Salkin, "you will throw them a vegan show that will excite them."
Anything to leverage the fact that it still wields undeniable power. "It goes past the TV and really goes into this community," said Dinki. "There's so many opportunities for chefs once you're involved with them." Think of all the real estate that cookbooks with a cross-armed celebrity chef plastered on the cover get at your average bookstore. This is who gets the bankable book deals, who have blogs with their names as the URL even when the posts and recipes are penned by ghostwriters. They're not just chefs, they're brands, fertilized and pruned to fit the cult of their culinary-defined personalities.
Of course, in spite of its enduring authority, cable television is not the only player in the game. As TV viewership diminishes year over year -- research firm eMarketer estimated that the number of US adults who will have gotten rid of their cable subscriptions would increase by 33% from 2016 to 2017, totaling 22 million -- streaming platforms flourish with exponential user gains. By the end of 2017, Hulu's paying membership base was up to 17 million, and the company drove $1 billion of advertising revenue for the first time ever. Netflix gained 5 million subscribers during the past quarter alone, bringing its total users to 112.8 million; its predicted peak market saturation is two to three years away, especially as it continues seeping into international markets. Meanwhile, Food Network viewership slid 10% in the coveted 18-49 demographic from 2016 to 2017, according to Nielsen data, although Discovery's broader investments in platform-based programming mitigate the general cord-cutting trend.
I would make the case that streaming is where this kind of programming really has its best shot at breaking through -- my sources have speculatively corroborated my suspicion! -- but considering that this is the internet, this fact would be shocking to nobody. But here's Wrobel, in the throes of developing a new show: "When the pitch package is together, I'm not even gonna touch regular TV."
Talking to Variety in 2013, then-president of Food Network and Cooking Channel, Brooke Johnson, used the term "bleeding edge" to describe the kind of programming Food Network produced. That may have been true during the years when English-dubbed versions of the original Iron Chef would air during primetime, but in 2018, Food Network doesn't need to deviate from the tried and true. "They're not a network that generally throws something up on the air and sees if it works," Salkin said. "They want to know beforehand it's going to work."
It’s as if breaching the topic of a veg-based cooking show is as strange as Congress entertaining the idea of farming hippopotamuses in the Louisiana bayous in the 1910s as a solution to a dire meat shortage in America. The calls demanding a New Food Society back then rings with the familiar echo of the convictions of scientists and activists today: our broken food system is desperate to be fixed. Not because we just feel like it, but because it's contingent on the vibrancy of society forthcoming. If we want this to work out, one of the many things we should all probably try to do is eat a little less meat.
In these interviews, more than several people asserted that eating a vegetarian or vegan diet is the way of the future. An increasing amount of the meat-eating public are becoming sympathetic to this roaring minority, more than in any year prior, and yet, because of complacency, because of money, because it’s easier to duck a problem than it is to solve it head-on, TV gatekeepers haven’t even flashed their turn signals to change lanes. "I am a loss to understand...," said W.N. Irwin, a pro-hippo researcher working in the US Department of Agriculture, in an interview with The Washington Post in 1910. "Everyone seems to hate to go out and blaze a trail."